'Once Upon a Time in the West,' 1969

Sergio Leone filled his best Western with performers whose charisma holds the screen, even though they have Monument Valley as their competition. Indeed, he sculpts his four principals to such a hard edge that they could form a movieland Mount Rushmore: Claudia Cardinale as the widow who owns a watering hole near the first transcontinental railroad; Henry Fonda as the sleek, flinty-eyed badman who tries to drive her off; Jason Robards as the grungy outlaw who defends her; and an electrically laconic Charles Bronson as the Man with the Harmonica (pictured). Leone deploys the character actors Jack Elam and Woody Strode with a sardonic precision that transforms their one big scene -- a train wait punctuated by dripping water and a buzzing fly -- into a paradigm of comic irritation. The conquest of space -- the hidden theme of Leone's early Westerns -- emerges here full force. The camera tracks beyond the railroad and captures the conquering heroes (and menacing villains) in outsize closeups. The cinematography combines with the majestic Ennio Morricone score and the nonpareil actors to make this the ne plus ultra of spaghetti Westerns: the Iron Horse Opera.
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